D.C.'s Diamond In the Rough

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The new ballpark for the Nationals, for which plans, drawings, artist's renderings and a virtual computer tour were released yesterday, will either be one of the most stunning achievements in sports architecture in years, or it will be a handsome, expensive, amenity-packed, unobjectionable ballpark that falls somewhere in the middle of the major league pack.

The aesthetic and economic impact of the new park is completely up in the air, according to some of those who have designed it. This time the devil isn't in the details. Rather it is the potential for a spark of architectural divinity that lurks in those final finishing touches. Will Washington get its iconic anchor in Southeast with walls of glass rather than metal panel, with exterior walls made of limestone or precast concrete rather than cheap, ugly ground-face cinder block?

In short, will the District make the same excellent choices on exterior finishes and details that make the Convention Center such a masterpiece, or will budget constraints reduce a potential modernist marvel of a park into a regular old stadium?

To grasp the core of this debate, simply go to two Web sites and compare the visions of the ballpark. At http://www.washdcsports.com/ , you will find artist's renderings of a perfectly fine ballpark. But I doubt you'll say, "Wow!"

Then take the "Virtual Stadium Tour," which makes you feel like you are in a helicopter flying around and into the ballpark. That second iteration of the Nationals' park took my breath away. It is light, almost transparent at points, and unlike anything else in the sport. What Camden Yards did for Baltimore and baseball architecture 15 years ago, such a park in Washington might do in the early 21st century. The entire side of the park that faces South Capital Street is so open that the park would glow like a magic lantern into the city at night.

"The virtual tour is more like what we would hope the ballpark could be -- something which has a very clear, open, contemporary feel," said Marshall E. Purnell, one of the project's head architects. "But that's probably not going to happen with the current budget unless somebody steps up to the plate. It could be the team, if they understand how much difference it will make to them in the long run."

Sports columnists exist to put their hands into the wallets of rich sports owners on behalf of the public. This is especially pleasant work since we don't yet know the identity of the new owner. But we know what he ought to do. MLB stopped the bidding for this team at $450 million because it didn't want somebody it didn't prefer (perhaps George Soros) to "buy the pot" with a high offer. So any owner that MLB Commissioner Bud Selig chooses probably got a bargain and will know it. Chip in.

"From 10 to 20 million dollars could make a world of difference in the architectural impact of that park -- that is, if the dollars were targeted for the exterior," Purnell said. "That's what we did at the Convention Center: 'Don't touch the exterior budget.' All exterior costs are only 12 to 15 percent of the budget. The difference between the cheapest-possible-way materials and the best is only six or seven percent on a $300 million park -- about $20 million."

The unveiling of the park plans immediately presented D.C. with another huge opportunity as well as another big problem. The park's elegant, airy design is a complete contrast to the bulky commercial buildings that may eventually encircle and threaten to engulf the stadium. The central justification for public funding of a new park was to spur economic development in bleak Southeast. That is entirely proper and must take priority.

However, HOK architect Joseph Spear was probably sending a sardonic message by putting those gruesome big-box parking garages in every rendering of the park: Build a stadium one block from a river, but have a panoramic view of garages beyond your outfield fences. "Yeah, it's better if it's not a garage," Spear said wryly.

In the next few years, the park will need all the help it can get to escape being surrounded and overpowered by buildings that are still just gleams in the philistine eye of some retail, condominium or parking lot entrepreneur. Once again, the political juice, and perhaps the cash, of a powerful owner with local roots might be essential.

Development and a ballpark can and should coexist. But remember not to kill the golden goose in the center of the project. Modern baseball fans are experienced and demanding. They've visited or watched games from almost every big league park. And there are 18 gaudy new ones in 15 years. In baseball, ballpark beauty not only sells but also has become essential. A $611 million ballpark that doesn't make the heart race on a first, as well as a 10th, visit simply can't fulfill its financial function.

So, when the District and the team owner are trying to decide between glass, which opens up a city panorama, and metal panel, which blocks it, when they are deciding between gorgeous exterior walls like the Convention Center's and ersatz cinder block, let them remember that a true cost-benefit analysis requires a long-term view. Great parks hold their appeal for decades and even generations. Dodger Stadium still feels contemporary, and Yankee Stadium's power never fades. But in just a few years, tacky tarnishes. Recent parks in Detroit and Cincinnati felt redundant or cheesy. It showed quickly in attendance.

In coming days, the public will be inundated with a long list of the new park's multitudinous virtues. And those charms will be true. The Nats will have 21,170 seats (counting Diamond and Founders clubs) in the lower bowl. As a percentage of total seats (41,000), that's probably the best ratio in baseball (close to the Phillies). The club level has 7,560 seats. So that's 28,730 must-have ducats. Also, most of the 2,850 seats in the right field upper deck will be quite special with the views of the Capitol and distances from home plate that may be closer than the comparable (and excellent) seats in RFK. In any park, the first 10 rows of the upper deck should be first-rate.

So, where are the bad seats? The press box, the first ever to be stuck in the nosebleed Bob Uecker section under the roof, is lousy. The press belongs in the 37,000th-best seat; fans should get the good views. I applaud the decision as I weep.

Still, as Washington exalts as it sees what $611 million can build, don't forget that what you see in this week's drawings and cyber tours isn't really what you get. Nobody really knows what the final look and feel of this park will be. It's in the details.

If the exterior of this ballpark, thanks perhaps to the financial help of the new owner, can be done in line with the architects' preferences, then the cheers for this design may rival the hosannas for RFK Stadium when it was nationally celebrated in 1961. If the development around the new park is done in a style and on a scale that respects the integrity of the diamond at its center, then D.C.'s hard decision to build this park will draw decades of cheers.

If not, maybe we'll be okay anyway. But don't say I didn't warn you.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company